It is fair to say that the Wa people, who inhabit a region in the north-east of Myanmar on the border with Yunnan Province in China, have not received a good reputation over the years. The British often referred to them as the ‘Wild Wa’ due to their penchant for headhunting, and supposedly never washing - ever. The reputation of the Wa has been further hampered in recent years with continuing skirmishes between Wa militia, the Burmese military and other ethnic groups.
Not much is known about the early history of the Wa, but it is believed that they have inhabited this mountainous region for time immemorial. According to Sir George Scott, a British Colonial Officer who was tasked in the late 19th Century with bringing the Wa into the Empire’s bosom, the Wa origin myth was that they came from two female ancestors Ya Htawm and Ya Htai who spent their early phase as tadpoles in the small lake known as Nawng Hkaeo. A suitably alluring belief for a culture that is relatively little known to the wider world.
In an attempt to show a different side to Wa people, and in the hope of displaying Wa culture at its best, two Wa sisters set up the restaurant and bar Root in Yangon in 2016. The two chic girls, Ipkaw - the more demure of the two - and Phyone - her bubbly younger sister - sat down with Sampan Travel to talk about the restaurant and setting the record straight on Wa culture.
Sipping upon their signature cocktail (the ‘Wa Tang Clan, made up of Wa liquor, gold rum, ginger ale and ginger; the girls instead opted for green tea) Sampan asked where the idea of Root came from …
Ipkaw: The idea of Root came about just after I had got back from Singapore in 2015, having lived there for 15 years. I felt that Singapore had a racial harmony, and when I got back here I saw in the media how there is a lot of ethnic conflict and a lot of ethnicities are negatively represented. There are other ethnicities that have positive representation about their culture but Wa was lacking that. I felt I needed to do something about it. It just so happened that Phyone had studied media and she was interested in documenting the Wa culture and interviewing the elders.
Phyone: The funny thing was actually we didn't really plan to open a restaurant and bar. I wasn't really interested in doing the bar thing - even though I do love drinking. We wanted to do a museum and change the theme every month. But then we started thinking, as a business how would that really work? OK, we would bring our culture and we would educate other people, but it wouldn't work. So then Ipkaw was like, ‘let’s do food too! They have never tried our food!’ There is one other Wa restaurant in Yangon, Ha Tai Wa but it is Shan Wa, and we wanted to go really authentic Wa. And then slowly Ipkaw was like, why don't we do a bar as well? Because the night life in Yangon at the time was not booming, there were not a lot of bars.
Ipkaw: And there were no Wa cocktails here! Back then there were no ethnic cocktails here at all.
Phyone: And so we brought it in and it worked. People really like it.
How much time did you spend in Wa as children?
Phyone: I went to Singapore when I was four. And when I was seventeen I went to the UK. So I never really grew up in Wa.
Ipkaw: I studied Burmese in Lashio and then English in Yangon, before I went to Singapore at 12.
How much time do you spend in Wa now?
Phyone: Most of our family is still there. We try to go back every three or four months, but we don’t really have a fixed amount of time that we go. When we do go it could be a week or two weeks, but sometimes not even that long.
Can you give a more positive impression of the Wa culture than the one we usually hear? Something to counteract the impression of Wa people being uncivilized and aggressive?
Phyone: Don’t take it from us because we might be biased. We met this German Anthropology Professor studying Wa people and culture. He had been to Wa State for six months. He is fluent in Wa and he can read and write Wa as well. And he heard about our restaurant from our relatives and visited us while he was in town. He came by and we spoke to him and we communicated in Wa. I wanted to know as a foreigner how he felt about Wa people, and he said Wa people are very friendly, very nice, and they love gatherings. And they are very straightforward, that is true too. If they don't like you they will just say, you know, ‘I don’t like you’. And he said he really liked that. We are very direct. He said there is this constant need for parties and gatherings, eating and dancing together, every night.
And what of the Wa community in Yangon?
Phyone: I think they are very kept to themselves. Not a lot of people knew about the Wa Church and the Wa Youth Centre until we started bringing it up and getting them to come here and do Christmas carols
Ipkaw: The Wa Church is also a place where they will keep children from Wa who come to study and be educated here. It is more like a community centre or hostel. From what I heard from them they do try to teach Wa culture and language but it is very difficult because the Wa that they teach is different to the dialect that the children speak. And so a lot of them pass on that and they learn Burmese and English instead, and they contribute to the Church by singing, or playing the piano or guitar - the skills that they have.
Phyone: Even within our family some of our nieces and nephews don’t speak Wa. They could be a mix of Chinese, so some of my sisters or their husbands don’t even bother teaching them Wa, and I think that is a pity because we are losing our culture. And even our own generation, like me - my English is way better than my Wa! When I communicate with my parents I try to speak Wa but I will always add in a little bit of Mandarin or whatever. You know, it is not full Wa what we speak. So even our generation are starting to lose the culture. So I think that it is very important for us to keep whatever we have, and try to tell people ‘hey we’re still here, this is what we have, and this is what we have had for a long time.’
And this restaurant is a way of doing that?
Phyone: I think food brings everyone together. We all eat, and we all enjoy food. So it’s like, ‘oh, have you tried this cuisine’, and it’s like, ‘oh no, ye ok’, and then you want to learn more about the culture.
Ipkaw: We make the food here for sharing. That is part of our culture too.
Phyone: And that is why we have long tables. In Wa State, it is not like a Chinese family where they sit on a round table. It is a really long table and we all sit and everyone starts eating with their hands. And everything is on banana leaves. A little bit like the Filipino way of eating. They place everything on a banana leaf and then they just start eating: BBQ meat, and the veggies, and the rice.
How would you describe Wa cuisine?
Ipkaw: I feel it’s quite refreshing and healthy.
Phyone: It is quite similar to Shan-Chinese food. We have a mix of other cultures as we have Burmese, Shan, and Chinese people living in Wa State as well, so there is a lot of influence on the food. Fusion food sort of.
What is the signature Wa dish?
Ipkaw: Moik. It is definitely Moik.
What is Moik?
Phyone: To a foreigner I would say that it is an Asian risotto. Except no cream, no cheese, it is a bit more savoury, a bit more healthy because of all the veggies, and a lot of herbs, because we live in the mountains. I think our ancestors would just grab whatever they could find and just throw it in a pot and see what they could cook. I think that is how Moik came about.
Ipkaw: We have three different versions; the wet one, the dry one which is kind of like rice, and then the soupy one. And so, if you are feeling a bit bloated maybe you would just cook the soupy one, and tomorrow you will eat the wet one.
Can you cook this food yourself?
Phyone: I can.
Ipkaw: I have never tried, apart from once when we went to the UK and we were craving Wa food.
Phyone: We were in the Isle of Skye, and we just cooked it. It was OK ... The herbs were not enough.
Ipkaw: But because the rice was not the correct one it came out a bit soggy, right?
Phyone: It came out a big soggy.
Ipkaw: And not so much flavour in the chicken.
Have your family to Root? What do they think of it?
Phyone: Yeah our sisters and our cousins have come. Not our parents. They are very proud of us. But not of the food! ‘Ah, it’s not spicy enough! It is not authentic enough!’
Ipkaw: The ingredients are not completely correct ...
Phyone: Because we are living in a city, right? We don’t even have free-range chicken. So we don’t get a lot of ingredients like you do when you are in the mountain where literally everything is fresh! And when you cook it is smells so good and it taste so much better. And when they eat it here they are like, ‘Mmm, OK we get it, but … no.’ We really try. Our rice and our tea we get all the way from Wa. But we can’t be bringing the herbs down every day; that is a lot of work, a lot of investment, and a lot of travel.
Ipkaw: It takes two days to get to Yangon. But our rice is actually grown in my mum’s field.
Phyone: And our tea is from a tea plantation of my parents as well.
Have you had to purposefully adapt the recipes so to be more accessible to the Yangon palette?
Phyone: We have toned it down. If we eat it ourselves we will tell the chef to make it extra spicey for us, but the extra level is actually the normal level of spice. When we first opened a lot of people were like ‘oh my god, it is so so so so spicey!’ So we had to cut it down, cut it down, cut it down ...
Why is the restaurant called ‘Root’?
Ipkaw: The name of Root is something we got from our father. We have always grown up way from our parents, so we speak Chinese in front of them, and English sometimes. And they say to us that we should speak our own language, and that we should not ever forget where we come from.
Phyone: ‘Never forget your roots.’
Ipkaw: Every time when we speak in front of our father, it is imprinted in our minds: Remember your roots!
Phyone: The root of our origin. And also root, its a root of a tree, and it works because you can see there is a lot of wood in our restaurant.
Ipkaw: We have used a lot of Wa textiles and fabrics, the Wa patterns, and even our bar …
Tell me about the Wa liquor?
Phyone: Wa liquor is millet. But unfortunately this is also part of us losing our culture because they price of the millet has gone up because the demand is really low. Back in Wa State a lot of youngsters are starting to drink more beer and more wine as it is starting to become more international. They would rather not drink Wa liquor so the demand for it is really low. But we decided to bring it down here. It is actually made by one of our relatives.
Are there some other restaurants in Yangon trying to do a similar thing to you? Places that you recommend travellers to visit while they are here?
Ipkaw: There is Rangoon Tea House, they are doing very well. And there is this Kayan restaurant, Vista Do Rio, doing really well. They have their own garden and it is quite busy. And they have Kayan liquor.
Myanmar has received a lot of negative media attention over the last six months. What would you say to people who are having second thoughts about visiting the country?
Ipkaw: I would say, do come to Myanmar, travel, see it. If you really care about the people in the country and you want to do something about it, come and check it out, and see for yourself. And find some way you can contribute positive things.
Root is open 7 days a week, located in downtown Yangon on Bo Myat Htun Street, Bo Myat Htun Tower, Botahtaung Township.